Sustainability and veganism III: the economy and society

Veganism is supported by many as a way to increase the sustainability of our food system, all the way from production to consumption. The dietary and environmental implications of this have already been discussed (see part I on nutrition, and part II on environmental impacts), but such a huge change in the way we see, buy and eat food will have wide ranging socioeconomic effects. This essay will be split into subheadings of different topics, considering both production and consumption.

The development of new products

  1. Alternative ‘dairy-free’ milk

An interesting study was conducted into the economic impact of alternative milks produced in the US in 2018 (Sanon, 2018). It looked at changing customer behaviours as well as the production of these alternatives, finding most notably that the increase in plant-based milk consumption was not necessarily forced by a growing number of vegans, but instead by those seeking healthier alternatives to whole milks. Consumers are reported to find these alternatives better tasting and healthier, which has led to plant-based milk in the USA accounting for 8% of the entire beverage industry (Sanon, 2018). The alternative milk industry will have an estimated value in the US of over $14bn by 2022, making it a fierce competitor to the traditional milk industry: in fact, the dairy industry has tried to sue over labelling plant-based drinks as “milk” under something called the “Dairy Pride Act” (!). But is this increase in the industry good for everyone?

As with a lot of industries, it is the small farms which are worst affected by loss in sales. Because larger companies receive higher amounts of government subsidies, they are more likely to be able to fund a transition of production into different types of milk, but without this capital, small-scale farmers may not be able to adapt their practices to suit new customer demands (Sanon, 2018). As well as this, competition with larger companies (such as Ben and Jerry’s, which recently released a range of dairy-free ice cream flavours) is extremely difficult in such a quickly evolving market with less funds to do so. Employment in this industry is therefore a key concern in the reduction of the consumption in dairy products. But the dairy industry is not the only industry affected:  ‘Ensuring farmer livelihoods’ was cited as one of the primary concerns for sustainability at the production stage of the meat industry, too (Berardy, 2015).

2. Alternative ‘meat-free’ meat

It has been found that some alternative meat products, which may be completely vegan, have as negative an impact on the environment than some unprocessed meats, because of the industrial processing which takes place to prepare them (Berardy, 2015). For example, a product known as soy protein isolate (SPI) can be found in many meatless alternative products, and is made from soy which has been processed to remove its fat, sugars and fibre. This product has high water and fossil fuel use which rivals that of chicken, pork and even beef production (Berardy, 2015) – suggesting that sometimes “vegan” and “environmentally-friendly” are not synonymous.

As with the dairy industry, these alternative products are competing with traditional meat production. it is often the burden of small-scale, local cattle farmers who must manage the economic impacts. For such small-scale businesses, reducing demand and income can be difficult to overcome: however, some have seen it as an opportunity: one example of this comes from a cattle farm in Derbyshire, UK, which hit the headlines in 2018 for swapping cattle for carrots in becoming a vegan vegetable farm:

We did our best to look after them, but you knew you were going to betray them. You really couldn’t look them in the eye” – Jay Wilde, owner of the converted farm in Derbyshire (inews.co.uk)

Jay Wilde and his cows, undoubtedly mooing in relief. Source: http://www.ethivegan.com

This kind of transition isn’t feasible everywhere – for example, the Sahel land strip in Africa is home to nomadic groups which keep and raise livestock, as the land is not amenable to crop production. This area, being arid and only used for this purpose, makes retraining for different employment difficult for local people. As well as this, many communities consider this way of life part of their cultural identity (BBC, 2017) – requiring people to change their whole way of life could drastically affect the unemployment rates and local economies of these areas.

Shifts in crop production

As has already been mentioned, in some instances the land available for food production does not support crop production. For example, in a comprehensive study by Peters et al. (2016), ovo-vegetarianism was suggested to be the most sustainable dietary regime in terms of land use. They postulated that if everyone in America went vegan, land for grains, fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts would need to increase compared to land already being used for grain, hay and cropland pasture. Their estimate for sustainability focused therefore on what was already available in terms of land use, and what would be the most efficient use of this land – and the answer was not veganism.

This highlights the important consideration that for some areas, supporting a predominantly vegan population is not easily possible without the conversion of land from one purpose to another. As such, a focus on locally produced goods might be a better approach to form dietary habits, as the consumer is then using what is directly available to them, without the need to lose food production years in converting land to arable agriculture.

Food Availability

Distribution of food around the world is an incredible task, and one which is dominated by social and economic concerns (Berardy, 2015). Food deserts provide an example where shifting dietary habitats is not easily achievable. These are urban areas where residents cannot afford to eat healthier products, and are often forced to rely on heavily processed foods. Because of this, many people view veganism as a “privileged” consumption trend, excluding certain ethnic, economic and social groups. But this is not the case: Greenebaum (2017) in fact shows that veganism is not in itself a privilege, but the ability to choose the food which you buy and consume is. For people living in food deserts, this privilege is not available to them. However, Greenebaum writes that following a vegan lifestyle does not have to be inherently more expensive than an omnivorous one:

The basic dietary staples for vegans such as rice, beans and potatoes are budget friendly. Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are reasonably priced, while frozen and canned ones are the most affordable and accessible” – Greenebaum, 2017

Social stigma and discrimination

Veganism has a bad reputation. This is due to several factors, often pushed by the meat and dairy industry through advertising campaigns. For example, consumers have been brainwashed into associating meat consumption with masculinity, which has led to the belief that vegan men are more feminine than their carnivorous peers. Then there are common criticisms of such a “radical” diet, which may come in the form of judgemental comments and behaviour from friends and family, weird questions like “But what would you do if you were on a desert island?”, the need to justify your personal dietary choices and the stereotype of vegans as being stuck-up and self-important (Greenebaum, 2017).

Source: messycookingalwaysvegan.blogspot.com

These judgements are often felt on the individual level – in a study of vegan experiences by Beverland et al. (2015), participants said that long-term relationships changed negatively as a result of their adoption of a vegan diet. However, these same participants highlighted the importance of being part of a community of vegans – offering support and a sense of camaraderie. It also allows for new communities to be made: people who identified as vegetarian/vegan in a study by Raphaely et al (2015) tended to value social justice, peace and equality more strongly than omnivores, and it is possibly these strongly held values which allow for stronger bonds to be made between people.

“Marketing often contributes to both the establishing and reaffirming of myths and in so doing, encourage certain actions that become part of accepted normative thoughts and behaviours.” – Raphaely (2015)

 Health Costs

A landmark study came out in 2016 by Springmann and colleagues, who attempted to put a price on the health cost savings across America of switching to a more plant-based diet. They did this by calculating the direct and indirect costs of care for diet-related illnesses, as well as the lost workdays associated with mortality from certain diseases. This was just one part of their analyses, which also incorporated estimates for the social cost of carbon emissions and a comparison of dietary guidelines. Their calculations are astounding: if the whole population of the US followed a vegan diet immediately,  $250bn would be saved each year: but even if Americans followed non-vegan dietary guidelines, $180bn less would be spent on dietary-linked health problems (Springmann et al., 2016). 

Transitioning toward more plant-based diets in line with standard dietary guidelines could reduce global mortality by 6-10% compared with a reference scenario in 2050… the economic value of the health benefits associated with more plant-based diets is compared with or exceeds the value of the environmental benefits” – Springmann et al., 2016

This presents a clear win for the economy, when considering the health effects of following a whole foods plant-based diet.

Summary

As has been suggested, there are SO MANY positive and negative socioeconomic arguments to a transition to a predominantly plant-based dietary regime. When combining these with the environmental and health benefits, it is clear to see why veganism is gaining popularity. I hope that this series of essays has given you an insight into the benefits and drawbacks of going plant-based – and with perfect timing, as today is the start of Veganuary. So, why not try it out?

References

BBC (2017) The consequences if the world decided to go meat-free [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170612-the-consequences-if-the-world-decided-to-go-meat-free (Accessed: 01/01/2020)

Berardy, A. (2015) Finding the future of food: Sustainable consumption lessons from and for veganism. Arizona State University.

Beverland, M.B., Wahl, K.M. & de Groot, J. (2015) Sustaining a Sustainable Diet: Vegans and their Social Eating Practices. In Annual Macromarketing Conference, p. 145

Greenebaum, J.B. (2017) Questioning the concept of vegan privilege: A commentary. Humanity & Society41(3), pp.355-372

Inews (2019) “I couldn’t look them in the eye”: Farmer who couldn’t slaughter his cows is turning his farm vegan [online] Available at:  https://inews.co.uk/news/long-reads/i-couldnt-look-eye-farmer-couldnt-slaughter-cows-turning-farm-vegan-332403 (Accessed: 01/01/2020)

Peters, C.J., Picardy, J., Wilkins, J.L., Griffin, T.S., Fick, G.W. & Darrouzet-Nardi, A.F. (2016) Carrying capacity of US agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene4(1), p.1

Raphaely, T. (2015) Impact of meat consumption on health and environmental sustainability. [pdf] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Diana_Bogueva/publication/306234429_Meat_myths_and_marketing/links/5aa1f797aca272d448b4c0c9/Meat-myths-and-marketing.pdf (Accessed: 21/04/2020)

Sanon, E. (2018) The Economic Impact of Non-Dairy Alternative Milk Beverages on the United States Dairy Industry. [pdf] Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/368a/43a6e665a6540dd04059fe28f2e9a2013ece.pdf (Accessed: 21/04/2020)

Springmann, M., Godfray, H.C.J., Rayner, M. & Scarborough, P. (2016) Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113(15), pp.4146-4151

Published by avleveri

Hi! I'm Anna, an environmental science graduate from the UK. My main interests (if you can't already tell from my blog posts) are sustainability, consumption, conservation, nutrition, fitness and food! Lots of food.

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